Education Funding

Rural Districts Score Big in Latest Race to Top Round

By Michele McNeil — January 06, 2014 6 min read
Myrtle Hall IV Elementary School teacher Gabrielle Wooden, left, and 1st grader Camilyn Anderson, 7, lead a Spanish class in Clarksdale, Miss. The Clarksdale school system won a $10 million Race to the Top grant for a range of school improvement efforts in the latest round of the federal competition.

In selecting the winners for the second round of the Race to the Top district competition, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a strategic decision to invest a large chunk of the $120 million in grants in rural America.

In fact, he passed up higher-scoring, more-urban districts in favor of funding a group of 17 school systems in Kentucky’s rural Appalachia and a small, mostly black district in the Mississippi Delta. Of the five winners announced last month, Houston was the only large, urban district.

“We want to make sure we’re serving children across the country,” Mr. Duncan said in a call with reporters announcing the winners. The goal, he said, is to “get a mix of innovation in very different communities.”

He did, however, acknowledge that there were far more deserving applications than money to pay for them.

Southern Sweep

The five winners, which are all from the South and beat out more than 200 other applicants, are:

• Clarendon County School District Two, a consortium of four urban and rural districts in central South Carolina with a high percentage of minority students and a burgeoning population of English-learners. Winnings: $25 million.

Clarksdale High School student Shamia Hopper works on a chemical equation. The Clarksdale district will use its $10 million federal Race to the Top grant to expand its 9th grade academy and improve professional development, among other plans.

• Clarksdale Municipal school district in the Mississippi Delta, a mostly black district with 3,350 students. Winnings: $10 million.

• Houston, a 200,000-student district and two-time winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Winnings: $30 million.

• Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a consortium of 17 rural districts in rural Appalachia educating 42,300 students, that narrowly missed winning during the first round of competition in 2012. Winnings: $30 million.

• Springdale school district in the northwest corner of Arkansas. Near the Tyson Foods headquarters, it enrolls 20,500 students, including many English-learners and immigrants from the Marshall Islands. Winnings: $26 million.

“We have been extremely focused for many years on drastically increasing student achievement. The great benefits of this partnership [with the Education Department] give us renewed hope of being able to do that,” said Jim D. Rollins, Springdale’s superintendent, during the Dec. 17 media call. “We’re interested in a personalized education plan for every child. And then developing the capacity of our teachers to deliver that personalized education plan.”

The Race to the Top district competition, which seeks to spur personalized learning at the local level, is a relatively new iteration of the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top brand. In 2012, the first in which districts could compete, Mr. Duncan picked 16 winners to split a much-larger $400 million pot. That winners’ circle included three charter-management organizations, another large rural cooperative in Kentucky, and one large, urban district, Miami-Dade County, Fla.

This year, however, Mr. Duncan deliberately passed over applications that were given higher marks by the department’s crew of outside peer reviewers so he could fund two lower-scoring, rural applications. That outcome was allowed under the competition’s design: The department established four categories within which districts could compete, based on whether they are in a Race to the Top state or whether they are rural. The goal was to ensure a more-level playing field between urban districts, which may have more resources and sophisticated grant writers, and their rural counterparts.

The two highest-scoring applications that got passed over were Winston-Salem in North Carolina and team Academy Charter School, a New Jersey charter school that is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP nationwide network of charters.

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners in Washington, who has written a book about urban school systems of the future, said he was encouraged to see rural districts, which often get overlooked for grant money, among the winners. However, he said he sympathizes with those districts that scored well but didn’t get a grant.

“You play by the rules and score well enough to win, but get bumped to make room for others,” Mr. Smarick said. “The exclusion of KIPP team is particularly disappointing because having a high-performing, high-poverty charter network in this portfolio of winners would’ve added a valuable dimension.”

Judging Criteria

The applications were judged on their vision and capacity for improvement as well as whether they pitched a strong plan to provide educators with resources to accelerate student achievement and prepare students for college and careers. The competition required a focus on personalized learning and gave preference to districts that formed partnerships with public and private organizations to offer services that help meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs outside the classroom.

It’s possible that 2013 could have been the last year for a district-level competition. Federal officials said they are hoping for additional Race to the Top money this fiscal year but may direct it toward a contest to improve higher education.

The leaders of the latest winning districts are taking similar approaches to personalizing learning for students, with a heavy emphasis on putting devices in the hands of students.

Expanding technology

Houston is working on a 1-to-1 digital conversion that starts in earnest in January, when students in grades 9-12 will get a laptop to take home as a way to foster 24/7 learning. The district will also implement a new “linked learning” model of teaching from elementary through high school that stresses project-based learning. Students will move on to exploring aptitudes and life interests in middle school and attending career academies in high school.

“This helps us [on] how we can scale up, and how we can do this faster, better,” said Superintendent Terry Grier in the media call.

South Carolina’s Clarendon County district also will make personal learning devices like laptops and tablets available to all students and create individualized learning plans for them.

The Springdale district in Arkansas plans to expand career academies, require 9th graders to take an online course, and improve its data dashboard.

The Kentucky Valley co-op will expand distance learning and better train teachers to use technology.

And Clarksdale, Miss., will focus on expanding its 9th grade academy, using video-based technology to remediate students in grades K-8 in reading and mathematics, and improving professional development.

“We are so elated at the opportunity to truly have school reform in our district. We’ve been at this process for a while,” said Superintendent Dennis Dupree. “The Race to the Top grant is going to solidify what we’ve been trying to do for a long time.”

Winner State Grant Highlights
Clarendon County School District Two South Carolina $25 million Project-based learning initiatives, individualized learning plans, expanded web-based digital content and increased dual-enrollment options for college and career training, tablet computers and internet access for all students.
Clarksdale Municipal School District Mississippi $10 million Personalized learning academies in 5th and 6th grades, instructional and data coaches, bolstered career academies
Houston Independent School District Texas $30 million Implementation of new “Linked Learning” model of teaching from elementary through high school with project-based learning, aptitudes and life interests in middle school, and a focus on career academies in high school.
Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative Kentucky $30 million Expanded distance learning, improved technology training, college/career mentors for middle and high school students.
Springdale School District Arkansas $26 million Creation of parent academies, one-to-one technology for all students, and new environmental science labs.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Rural Districts Win Big in Race to Top Awards

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